Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: Aerosmith: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Boston Bad Boys

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Aerosmith: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Boston Bad Boys
By Richard Bienstock
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis), 2011
224 pages; USD $35.00 / CAN $39.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-4106-3

The only time I’ve ever seen Aerosmith live was May 31, 1974, at the Felt Forum (now blandly known as the Theater at Madison Square Garden), opening for the band we actually went to see, Slade. I was musically unformed then, and all I really remember is the ear-piercing volume, which was louder than the headliner. And we were sitting pretty far toward the back. This was especially true during the harmonica solos. Now, however, I would like to see that concert again, and rejudge it. Oh, I did once see Tyler’s house on Lake Sunapee, NH (from the water), but I digress…

Part of a series of illustrated history books of bands and musicians from Voyageur Press (such as AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton), Aerosmith takes front and center stage this time. As with the others in the series, the tomes are oversized hardcover, the size and heft of a coffeetable book, but along with the images is a nicely comprehensive history of the band and its members. In Leon Uris fashion, Bienstock introduces us to one of the musicians (vocalist Tyler is naturally the first, as he also is the one who had any real career previous to Aerosmith) and we learn about his life up to the point of meeting the next future ‘Smither, then we read their story, and so on until all five are caught up to the point of being the band.

Aerosmith is a band whose early output was released faster than they gained fame, so it’s not until about the third or fourth album that they started to really get known beyond their own Bostonian back yard.

The basic history of the band is legend: from fame to overindulgences (alcohol, sex, drugs…) to practical paralysis and stagnation, leading to Run DMC covering “Walk This Way,” followed by an even larger resurgence for the band (also thanks to smart marketing, musical hooks that can bite into your brain for days, and especially well-made videos on the then music channel, MTV – and having Alicia Silverstone and Tyler’s daughter Liv star in them didn’t hurt, either) and a good forced cleaning out (aka rehab) led to years of the band at the top of their game, only to fall (possibly) fall apart again in just the past couple of years.

Certainly, I am not giving away anything in their history there, nor am I stepping on Bienstock’s shoes because this book kept this particular non-fan interested throughout. Without using this as a personal muck-raking excuse, he tell the story of the band and its members, relying more on their musical history than marriages, relationships, affairs, etc.; in fact, the only photo of any family member is of Bebe Buell, Liv’s mom (who has a new album out, FYI). There isn’t even any mention of how Perry won the heart of Willie Alexander’s wife, Billie Montgomery (who appears with Willie in his “Bass Rocks” video), who became Perry’s second spouse. Rather, we learn about where they recorded what, on what instruments, produced by whom and the relationship of the band with their producers, engineers and management (the last is occasionally tricky). Yes, the egos shine through as the band is much quoted, mostly taken from period interviews.

Along with all the text are the photos, of course; after all this is an ultimate illustrated history. There are a multitude of reproductions of the band as they go through the many, many, many years, including instruments played, show posters, buttons, tee-shirts, and especially tons of backstage passes and entry stubs; 400 images in all, each crisp and clear. There are even pages of the Revolutionary Comics history of the band. [As yet another sidebar, one thing I would have liked to have seen included was the Max’s Kansas City Comics cartoon drawn by Shari Szaba (she worked there) where she has Steven Tyler, David Johansen and Mick Jagger all come to Max’s on the same night!]

As with the other books in this series, many of the subject’s albums are sectioned out and dissected and reviewed into what went into them and their influence on culture. Similarly to the AC/DC book, the breakouts are mostly written by numerous other well known critics, such as Chuck Eddy, Martin Popoff, Ramones’ ex-manager (etc.) Danny Fields, and even Phil Sutcliffe (who wrote the AC/DC Ultimate Illustrated History).

While these breakouts are interesting, per se, a lot of them hold redundant information from the rest of the book, which occasionally gets tiring. Similarly, many of the captions for the images are just quotes (or paraphrasing) of the text in the book proper, so again, it gets monotonous at times, but that’s just tributaries. The main text retains its level of high quality throughout.

There is a lot of info here that I didn’t know about the band that really raised an eye. For example, at some point when Joe Perry leaves to form his Project, he is temporarily replaced by Jimmy Crespo. At first I was wondering, “I know that name, but from where?” Then Beinstock explains how he was the guitarist of Brooklyn’s own almost-and-should-have-been-famous rockers Flame (saw them at Zappz on their home turf in 1977 or ‘78, and were a blast; they are worth checking out. Okay, okay, back to Aerosmith…), and in fact, when Tyler’s addiction starts to really get the better of him, there is talk of him being replaced by Flame’s vocalist, the excellent Marge Raymond. Now that woulda been something! There are lots of juicy tidbits like that throughout that don’t even need to be salacious.

The book is very up-to-date, not only mentioning Tyler’s role on American Idol, but the reaction of the audience throughout the season, as Tyler grabs the reins of the show and becomes de facto judge leader, with the most on the ball (as he did early on with Aerosmith). And even though the Slade show I attended at MSG is unmentioned, their performance on the “Wayne’s World” segment of Saturday Night Live is in the telling (it was a brilliant moment).

There is certainly enough information here to keep any of the blue army happy, and even some of us who are just curious about the band that captured the ear of so many.

Bonus Videos:
[Note that from this point on, I will avoid Vevo as much as possible]

And, of course:

Extra Bonus Video:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Are these The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time?

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from internet: note that this blog is Vevo-free

The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time: A fan’s guide to the stuff you love to hate!
By Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell
A Citadel Press Book (US) / Musson Book Company (CAN), 1991
252 pages, $14.95 (purchased as used for $6.99)

While, yeah, books of lists like this are considered fluff by many, it still takes a lot of work and research to get these puppies out. This particular one is now 20 years old, and has been in my collection for at least half that long. It was fun reading the first time around, and again as I write the following.

Having aged a bit with white around the trimmings, I have become acquainted with theories like General Semantics, coming to realize that the use of “worst” and “best” are what Neil Postman describes as Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk due to the high level of subjectivity. According to Sturgeon's Law, “90 percent of anything is crap.” Taking it a step further (my own theory), which 10 percent is not crap will vary from person to person, so by adding those 10 percents together, you still end up with it all (100 percent).

So, lists like this are fun to go through, and give a reader the chance to cherry-pick, disagree, and perhaps add others. This is what this blog is actually about: I will comment on some of what Guterman and O’Donnell posit (but not all, as there are 50 singles and 50 albums listed, 100 in total), and run a commentary on specific listings.

The Fifty Worst Rock-and-Roll Singles of All Time

No. 50: John Cougar, “Jack and Diane”
No argument there. The only record of Cougar (Melloncamp) I have ever liked was a four-song EP called Kicks, which he did for indie label Gulcher Records (who also released all the Gizmos tracks:, just after he left MainMan. A poor man’s Springsteen, Melloncamp sounded a bit watered down, much as the Boss himself did at times during his own “Dancing in the Dark” period.
Cougar's "Jack and Diane"

No. 48: The Everly Brothers, “Ebony Eyes”
While I adore much of the EB canon, this is certainly not one of my faves. It’s clearly a bandwagon jumper to other “she’s dead, so O! whoa is me” songs that were popular at the time (e.g., Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her”). The authors explain why a duo who was known for such quality songs (I can still listen to “I’m On My Way Home Again” and get perked up) released something so blatantly boring in four words: “They changed record companies.”
"Ebony Eyes"
"I'm On My Way Home Again"

No. 45: Bryan Adams, “Summer of ‘69”
I probably shouldn’t confess this, living in Canada and all, but I don’t know if this is a “worst” or not because Adams has never meant anything to me at all. Wouldn’t know one of his songs if I fell over it. His material all sounds like the same level of whatever to me.
"Summer of '69"

No. 40: Mick Jagger and David Bowie, “Dancing in the Street”
I still have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw this jaw-droppingly bad song and video during the seemingly endless “Live Aid” broadcast, where under-rehearsed acts like CSNY were held up to pander to an audience. Guterman and O’Donnell explain that the song and video were both recorded and shot in the same day. Could have been within the same hour, it’s so pathetically weak in both sound and image. Wish Mick and Dave would have forgotten the Motor City; they should have both been put in the penalty box for this (jeez, I guess I really am living in Canada, eh?)
Jagger and Bowie "Dancing in the Street"

No. 39: Simon and Garfunkel, “Dangling Conversation”
Here is the first of the choices of which I firmly disagree. I am totally willing to confess that while others were listening to rock in its variable forms during the ‘60s, I was up in my garret (okay, my bedroom) listening to the likes of S&G. Certainly I understand what the authors are trying to say, that the song is trying overly hard to sound deep and sincere, but in its timeframe, it’s quite fitting, as the folk movement was morphing into the singer-songwriter genre. However, there are some S&G songs that I would willingly replace this with as being, well, not great material, such as “Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” or the Dylanesque “A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)”, which I’m still not sure if its an homage or slam.
"Dangling Conversation"
"A Simple Desultory Philippic"

No. 35: Rod Stewart, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”
From the first time I heard “Maggie Mae,” I knew I was not a Stewart fan. But when this song came out, it was like going from bad to worse. The only version of this ditty I’ve heard that I’ve liked was Tiny Tim’s, which was done as broadly as the song actually needs to be. Rod tries to be sexy, and comes out as a macho egoist. Besides rocker + disco = cash-grab.
Rod Stewart's version
Tiny Tim's cover

No. 34: Grand Funk Railroad, “The Loco-Motion”
Yes, I agree that this is not a great version of the Little Eva song (written by Goffin & King – or, as I like to think of it, King & Goffin), but it is far from the worst. Kylie Minogue? No, that honor would probably have to go to the band Christopher Milk. That being said, the CM version is also among my warped favorites, perhaps because it is so bad, right up there with the exquisite Gloria Balsam’s “Fluffy” and the Residents’ atonal “Satisfaction.”
Grand Funk Railroad
Kylie Minogue

Nos. 32-33: Melanie, “Ruby Tuesday"; ”Brand New Key”
My first concert was Melanie (Safka) at Carnegie Hall (which was released as an album). I loved her vibrato voice, which Guterman and O’Donnell refer to it as gargling. As for her Rolling Stone cover of “Ruby Tuesday,” which they call a “baroque melodrama,” I’m fine with it. Yes, it’s bombastic, but she had the vocal power to take it up. If it were me, I would replace “Ruby Tuesday” with the overly long “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” On the other hand, I’m in total agreement with “Brand New Key,” a gawdawful song right up there with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” She was so much better than that in general, as songs like “Leftover Wine” prove.
"Ruby Tuesday"
"Brand New Key"
"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma"
"Leftover Wine"

No. 24: Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
While yes, this is a Debbie Downer of a song, it’s a powerful statement of its time. It is the yin to the yang of Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Beret” (also referenced in this book). But the authors have it backwards: it is McGuire’s gravel voice that actually makes this work because it is a harsh song. The Turtles were an amazing group, but their rendition of this song was way too soft (and edited). If you ever saw the clip of Barry singing this on Shin-Dig, he gives an incredibly emotionally raw and earnest go at it, reminiscent to me of Buffy Ste.-Marie’s powerful turn at her “University Soldier” on David Steinberg’s show, Music Scene.
Barry McGuire
The Turtles
Barry Sadler
Buffy Ste-Marie

No. 22: Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to Be Square”
Actually, they could have just stopped at the name of the band, and just left the song title to be filled in by any of their releases.
“Hip to Be Square”

No. 21: Eric Carmen, “All By Myself”
While I really didn’t like this song, I would have no problem replacing it with the much worse yet similarly themed Gilbert O’Sullivan song, “Alone Again Naturally” (I just with the song’s protagonist would have offed himself before the song and spared us all), which for some reason did not make this list. I had tickets to see Eric Carmen twice in the ‘70s, once when he was in the Raspberries and once solo, and both fell through (he was replaced in the latter by the far superior Deadly Nightshade).
Eric Carmen
Gilbert OSullivan
Deadly Nightshade

No. 19: Herman’s Hermits, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”
Really? I mean, yes, it’s a ridiculous song that has no point really except to exist as far as content goes, but really? Worst? It was good enough to inspire a Ramones classic. It also changed the face of U.K. music in America, being the first to actually sound British, opening up the possibilities to the likes of Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday Afternoon.” Now, instead, I would have put the HH’s too-bouncy and flippant cover of “Silhouettes.”.
Small Faces

Nos. 12 -13: Harry Chapin, “Taxi”; “Cat’s In the Cradle”
Being a huge Harry Chapin fan, I naturally disagree with “Taxi,” a touching story which is, at points, overly orchestrated (though Harry used the same group for all his songs) at points, but it has a catchy melody and a sad-yet-sweetness to it. How about replacing the silly “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” in its stead? As for “Cat’s In the Cradle,” I have to concede this one. Much like the above mentioned “Brand New Key” by Melanie and Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Cats…” was a huge hit but always felt pandering to me and unfairly misrepresentative of the artist’s body of work.
"Cats In the Cradle"
"30,000 Pounds of Bananas"

No. 10: Richard Harris, “MacArthur Park”
Everything Guterman and O’Donnell say about this song is true, including the use of the word “pretentious,” but I like it. Perhaps it is because it has such a thick Spector-esque wall of sound? I even like that last, high pitched blast of “Oooooh, nooooooooo,” that has been mocked so many times. The Donna Summers cover shows how bad the song could actually be (I actually don’t mind Summers’ voice, just her usual material and how she was produced).
Richard Harris
Donna Summers

No. 9: Don McLean, “American Pie”
Again, this is a pretty damn ostentatious song sung by a pretty petty singer (For many years McLean refused to tell what anything meant, as if he were being insulted). However, it’s also catchy as all hell, and inspired a spoof version that is possibly equally brilliant: Weird Al Yankovic’s “The Saga Begins.” What the original song actually means? Well, I really don’t care, and enjoy singing along with it anyway! So there.
Don McLean
Weird Al Yankovic

No. 8: Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, “Sugar Shack”
Just an awful, saccharine mess. The vocals are bad, sung in a cutesy way that makes you dream of grabbing a 2x4; the guitar’s wip-wip-wip sound is chalkboard scratching, and well, you get the idea. Actually, when I think about it, everything I don’t like about this song is present in most of the dreck on the radio nowadays: pretend emoting for the sake of sales.
"Sugar Shack"

No. 6: Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)”
I think the authors don’t get what is so special about this one-hit wonder (nearly universally used as the example for the single-hit phenomenon) is not its doomsaying, not it’s switching from XX25s to XX10s, nor facility; rather it is the driving beat, the up-change in scale after each set of years, and especially the level of campiness in what they’re saying. What ya have here is a fun song about the end of days.
"In the Year 2525" (or 6 to 4?)

No. 5: Peter, Paul and Mary, “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”
I agree that PPM were way out of touch by the time this slam on rock and folk rock came out. At first, I wasn’t sure if the lyrics were meant as complementary or not, but as the years have winged along, I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be an insult to what was on the radio at the time. It’s ironic that it became a radio hit for the trio. As a kid, I was amused by their impersonations of Donovan and the Mamas and the Papas (with Mary Travers [RIP] filling in excellently as Mama Cass). While I like PPM, their music always seems kind of innocuous to me, and so I wouldn’t put their stuff in a “worst of” any more than a “best of.” I just like ‘em, and still play their stuff on occasions.
"I Dig Rock and Roll Music"

No. 1: Chuck Berry, “My Ding-a-Ling”
An example of how far the true king of rock and roll had fallen. It’s not the raunch that bothers me about the song. I mean, I heard a great live extended version of his “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and there was a lot of the extracurricular stuff Berry was known for in it, but “My Ding-a-Ling” was just wrong. As much as I think Chuck deserves the bucks, I kinda wish this one had not been a hit and disappeared quickly.
Chuck Chuck Bo-Buck...
"Reelin' and Rockin'" Live

The Fifty Worst Rock-and-Roll Albums of All Time

No. 50: U2, “The Unforgettable Fire”
I could never understand the appeal of whine and screech master Bono. And, if I may digress, don’t get me started on Sting, who for some reason doesn’t appear in this volume…

No. 43: Various Performers, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: The Original Soundtrack to the Motion Picture
This is kind of a no-brainer, innit? As the authors rightfully state: “It was doomed from the start.”
Hitch a ride on the film's trailer

No. 39: America, History: America’s Greatest Hits
No. 34: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Turkus
No. 10: Yes, Tales from Topographic Oceans
I don’t necessarily think this music is bad, as much as boring. When the sounds were taken out of the hands of musicians and placed into those of technicians; no thank you because it’s gotta be rock and roll music if you wanna dance with me.

No. 31: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Blood, Sweat, and Tears
No. 7: Chicago, Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall
I lumped these two together for one reason: misuse of a horn section. Both try to meld rock and roll to brass, and come out the poorer for it. With BS&T, sure vocalist David Clayton-Thomas has the rock-requisite gravel voice that sounded more lounge-like live, but the material itself was overwrought tended to sound like a game show theme. Yes, “Spinning Wheel” was one of the most covered songs of the year (even Frank Sinatra did it: “Those cats got to go round”), but it’s a pretty awful song. Okay, I concede I like “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” and likewise for a very short minute “And When I Die,” but the band really went over the top with each number. As for Chicago, even with different singers at various stages, they were always just bland, again, even though they were immensely popular. For me the question isn’t “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” but the follow-up line: “Does anybody really care?” By anybody, of course, I mean me.
Blood Sweat and Tears
A Jeannie cover

No. 39: Starship, Knee Deep in the Hoopla
No. 18: John Travolta, Travolta Fever
Too easy.

Nos. 16-17: The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World; Shaggs' Own Thing
The Shaggs are the kind of experience that you have to be cool to realize just how cool they are. Yes, they were off-key (both vocally and instrumentally), and their songs include titles like “My Pal Foot-Foot,” but there was something magical about their sound; perhaps it was the DIY thing, or just being willing to be out there, but what was released was beyond bad, enough to reach into a realm of greatness. I would rather listen to “My Pal Foot-Foot” than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
"My Pal Foot Foot"

No. 11: Jethro Tull, Aqualung
Back in high school, this guy I knew really tried hard to get me into liking Tull, through both Aqualung and their equally boring Thick as a Brick. He laid back, joint in hand, grooving to the rambling sounds of the guitars and ice-pick-to-the-ears of the flute, and I also lay back and dreamed to taking that flute and jamming it into the strings of the same guitar. “Snot running down his nose” is the only line I ever walked away with from those two sets of disks.
Jethro Tull prove that you call it mucos, but it's snot

No. 8: The Doors, Alive, She Cried
I know Jimmy Guterman has a particular distaste for the Doors, but he is totally accurate in the first line of the review: “Jim Morrison is the most overrated performer in the history of rock and roll.” I’ve been saying that since, well, the ‘60s. Sure, I like some of the Doors material, most of which can fit on a greatest hits compilation so I don’t have to listen to “a potential icon [with] overwrought, overreaching lyrics and tormented, ‘I’m-such-a-rebel’ posturings.” Right on, Jimmy, right on.

No. 6: Milli Vanilli, The Remix Album
Wait, when did Milli Vanilli become rock and roll?

No. 2: Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music
Again, the section starts off with a flip but true statement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we present: The Most Unlistenable Album in the History of Pop Music (including by Kenny Rogers)!” And yet, if this is so, why is this noise collection that would actually help spawn the whole post-industrial genre (e.g., Einstürzende Neubauten) only No. 2? Anyone familiar with Reed’s infamous “fuck you” to his record label, ending his two-album obligation with one fell swoop, knows that this release is something special, and even if one doesn’t listen to it all the way, there is some kind of pleasure in just owning the set.
The first side of "Metal Machine Music"
Einstürzende Neubauten

There is much more out there that could have been added to the book, for want of more space.. For example, under the singles area, there’s the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral,” Mongo Jerry’s hyped-up “In the Summertime,” the Beach Boys’ “Louie, Louie” (based more on the original Richard Berry arrangement than the Kingsmen), Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ cover of “See You In September,” Nigel Harrison’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In the Sun,” or Dovovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” to name just a few. As for albums, there’s always Brian Eno’s Portsmouth Sinphonia, anything by “Wildman” Fischer (again, music I like, but still in this category), the KISS members’ four solo LPs, and sooooo many others. Shame they didn’t do a volume II. They did, however, release a follow-up of sorts with The Best Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time just a couple of years later.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book, meanwhile, including sections like “The Worst Rock and Rollers of All Time,” “The 33-1/3 Rules of Rock and Roll,” a section of bad Dylan covers, and songs about Elvis, etc.

And what could be added since this book was released? Well, when I have to compile a yearly Best of / Worst of list, usually for the latter I just say “Open up Billboard to the Top Ten list from any time during the year, and there you are.”

Feel free to leave a comment on what you consider to be the worst rock and roll record – single or album – of all time…

* Sturgeon's Law

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

DVD Reviews: House of the Damned and Lust for Vengeance

The reason these two reviews by Richard Gary are grouped together is that they are both made by African-American auteur Sean Weathers, who is based in Brooklyn, New York. He started making films in the genres he liked at a young age, usually with the assistance of producer Aswad Issa and cinematographer George Lopez.

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

House of the Damned: 15th Anniversary Edition
Written and directed by Sean Weathers
Full Circle Filmworks, 1996 / 2011
72 minutes, USD $9.95

This is the 15-year rerelease of indie filmmaker Sean Weather’s first film. Shot in glorious black and white, and mostly in Brooklyn, it doesn’t get very deep, but it’s built on an imaginative foundation.

Here’s the basic diggity (and I’m not giving away anything that’s not on either the box or common literature about the film): Liz (Valerie Alexander) comes home after her dad’s murder (in his own house). Living there is her youthful-looking mother, Emily (Monica Williams) and grandfather. They both have a secret that Liz is about to find out before the end of the night, which happens to be her 21st birthday. Four friends (aka the fodder help her celebrate, and while they all meet their fate in sometimes ghastly, other times questionable ways, Liz is actually the target of the whole affair, and so naturally is the only one that delays that doom.

There is a lot packed into the film, including witchcraft, slasher elements, zombies (the voodoo-forced-to-obey kind, not the braaaaaains ones), all with a haunted house feel. In many ways, this is a very successful film, especially considering it’s a first one by this collective, though one may say it arguably tries to cover too much. I don’t have a complaint with that, though, since Weathers doesn’t attempt to overlap genre types often enough to make it confusing. Heck, there is even a bit of nudity and a hint of lesbianism, as well as a moment of bad rapping (purposeful, I believe, considering a comment by Liz at one point).

I’m not sure what element he was using, be it VHS or s-VHS (I’m guessing one of those by the age of the film), but the black-and-white is highly grainy, and the handheld camera looks it. Still, there is a consistent tone throughout which holds up even after all this time and changes in technology (e.g., if this was some form of videotape, then odds are it was cut on editing bay equipment, rather than on a computer, which is much more time consuming and laborious).

There are a few holes here and there that are common with both indie and especially first-time writer/directors which are kind of blatant. For example, when one of the friends is done in while in the basement, we see the reaction of Liz and her erstwhile rapper boyfriend as they stand in the doorway, but we never see what they saw (the moment in is the trailer, below).

But the biggest flaw for me is the lighting, or lack thereof. The scenes on the roof and in the basement, for example, are creepy for certain, and in that they’re effective, but sometimes the shots are so dark that we’re left not being certain at what we’re seeing.

It is important to remember that writer / director Sean Weathers was 16 when he made this film, not actually something that is well-publicized, but his IMDB bio states he was born in 1980. For someone that young age, this is a pretty complex feature with lots of elements. I’m guessing many of the actors are among the same age group, and good on them for that.

It’s obvious what some of the roots of this film are, such as the Evil Dead and The Return of the Living Dead series. Weathers is evidently a fan of the genre, and that he wants to create his own and give back is a beautiful thing.

As far as I know, none of Weathers’ films, including this one, went the theater route, but rather direct to home market. This was actually quite smart maneuvering on his part, especially if he hit the horror convention circuit. Bet they did really well locally at the neighborhood video stores that were prevalent at the time.

The extras include some of his subsequent trailers, such as this one and the film below, and others like Hookers in Revolt (2006). There are also outtakes and clips from his The Unfinished Works of Sean Weathers (2004).

There are two interesting featurettes also included. One is a present-day interview with the lead actress, Valerie Alexander, who discusses what the shooting experience was like, filmed by an unseen interviewer (a self-deprecating Weathers). Some of the questions are just plain worthless, such as querying which male cast members would she “marry, fuck, or kill” The more interesting bits were actual anecdotes about the filming. The second short takes the viewer back to the house in the present, and starting from top to bottom, Weathers discusses the shooting with the camera person. The basement part is as creepy as the film, so that’s effective.

Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Explicit Edition
Written and directed by Sean Weathers
Full Circle Filmworks, 2001 / 2011
85 minutes, USD $9.95

The director, Sean Weathers, watched over 100 Giallo films before he made this picture. What’s a Giallo? He explains in a title card at the beginning: Giallo is the name for a distinct set of Italian thrillers from the 60’s [sic] that combined crime, murder, eroticism, nudity, mystery and whodunits, with stylish visuals.

Weathers had come a long way in the five years from his first release, above. He seems more assured about his direction, and the narrative is complex, yet cleaner. Ah, yes, the storyline.

Five women who have been friends since childhood are being picked off, one by one, possibly by a male acquaintance from their junior high days named Michael Richards (I am assuming that he was named for the “Kramer” actor, ironically half a decade before his racist rant) who had, after some false accusations, accosted one of them and was sent away to the sanitarium. The story of the events that surround these women meeting their fate is told to us, as described in another early title card, in five separate chapters (averaging about 13 minutes), in non-linear order. Helpfully, though, we are told the order by each chapter’s title card, such as “Anna (4).” If this sounds confusing, it’s actually not while watching the film, which is kudos to Weathers. There is very little suspense on who is the killer, though he is dressed in black leather with a motorcycle helmet with dark visor (what confused me is the person in disguise who kills Stephanie (2) looks to be female…).

Each of these women has a vice, be it drugs, bulimia, or sexual addiction, and we get to see it all in detail. While not stated, I am assuming that their relationship with this guy from their past who was seen leaving the first killing (victim’s name is Jennifer Lopez!), according to a police detective who questions the women a few times, has affected them to the point where they do these self-abusive behaviors as an escape from the memory.

Using grainy video to emulate 16mm, I am again assuming (let me know, Sean), the camera often floats around the actors (who are fully nude at some point or another, including women and most of the men), in a very Mario Bava way. While there are few sharp zooms and super close-ups of eyes, as is common in Giallo (especially Dario Argento), Weathers does an interesting thing with the film’s hue: whether the film is in black and white or color, there are extreme tints used so the image is either red, yellow, blue, green, orange, or others, varying from scene to scene. This was a really nice touch.

As with the previous film, there is a dark sense of humor, such as a character here named being Putney Swope (if you haven’t seen the film by that name, you really need to do so; not only is it smart and hilarious, it has a similar feel to Weathers’ and was directed by Robert Downey Sr.). Another is when a character is being held by the killer with his hand over her mouth, and a roommate walks right by shielding her eyes because she thinks the noise she’s hearing is her pal having sex.

Many of the actors in this film are non-pro, with this or other Weathers’ films as their only credits, but they all do relatively well for their experience at the time, and the nature of the film (i.e., a low budget indie). However, they all bravely are willing to simulate (I’m assuming, once again) sex or at least be naked as they wind their way through their first cinematic endeavor in most cases.

Weathers makes few missteps, which is common in the genre. A key one is that we never see Lisa (5), the last on the murderer’s list, done in. Does she survive? This is unclear. And why is someone who is smitten with Stephanie killed, other than being a clingy creep? I believe perhaps he was in her apartment (as he’s smelling a female’s underwear at the time), but if so, how did the killer get him out? Another is a gratuitous lesbian scene on a beach between two characters in the Jennifer section that have nothing I can tell to do with the actual storyline. One minute they’re complaining about their boyfriends, and the next they’re nude and, well… The biggest bug in my bonnet, though, is that I would have liked to have had more detail about Richards and his motivations.

The extras are similar to the first film above, with trailers for Weathers’ films, and clips of outtakes of various projects. In one section are more title cards, this time with trivia about the making of the film. There is also an interview with Weathers on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the few location shots in the film outside of apartments. Here he discusses the film’s progress, but I would have liked to have had a more thorough commentary track, as well. Weathers is a remarkable guy with interesting ideas, and his work process seems to be something worth hearing.

While I figured out the final shot of the film about 20 minutes in, this was still a fun ride to see where it was going, and how it got there. As a low budget indie goes, sure there is more that ‘Weathers and crew can do to improve, but all things considered – especially comparison to some other films of this nature in the genres he’s hooked into – it shows so much promise. With all sincerity, I would love to see what Weathers could do with some real mentor guidance and bigger bucks backing him up. That could prove his real mettle or his downfall. It would be nice if someone gave him the chance to find out. Meanwhile, I will pay respects to Weather’s Full Circle Filmworks, whose slogan is “Stickin’ it to the man 24/7.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

DVD Review: Andy Warhol’s Bad

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Andy Warhol’s Bad
Directed by Jed Johnson
Cheezy Flicks, 1977
105 minutes, USD $7.95

Even though he probably didn’t really have anything to with the films other than being willing to publicize it by having his moniker attached, Andy Warhol apparently loved titles with one word following his name, such as Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, Andy Warhol’s Trash, Andy Warhol’s Flesh, and Andy Warhol’s Heat.

Most of the films had a strong amateur quality to them, which actually made them feel all the more gritty and real, rather than taking away from it. Thus is the case with the film at hand, Andy Warhol’s Bad.

The basic plot revolves around Hazel Akins, played in middle age by Carroll Baker (who sizzled up the screen with the likes of Baby Doll), a Queens, NY, cosmetologist (i.e., does electrolysis from her home) is a crime pimp. She takes orders from regular customers on transgressions upon request (e.g., the opening scene of Cyrinda Foxe trashing a lunch counter’s bathroom). She only deals with women criminals who get paid and then give her a large cut that she calls “rent.” That is until…

Enter Perry King as L.T., a grifter drifter who manages to sweet talk Hazel into letting him stay at her house until he hears from the person hiring him; the only reason she agrees is because of the large share of her cut. Y’see, Hazel is greedy. Even though a cop is hanging around (Charles McGregor, of blaxploitation and Blazing Saddles fame) asking for a name to arrest so he can look good, she won’t turn anyone in simply because of she doesn’t want to lose the commission, not because of good will.

I knew I was going to like this film from the first piece of dialog said by King. He walks into a lunch counter (yes, the same one as mentioned above) and he says, “Coffee. Light and sweet.” I haven’t heard those words since moving to Canada. For those up here who don’t now, it’s the original “double-double.”

In fact, one of the great joys of this film is the harsh Brooklyn and Queens accents, which come naturally, unlike most of what you hear in the media (e.g., CSI: NY). It’s just brutal happiness. Rosie O’Donnell, when she was much younger and doing stand-up, posited that no one would have listened to Einstein if he had a New York accent. But I digress….

Morals are a bit hard to come by with this crowd, as the range goes from casually reading other peoples mail and snipping off fingers for personal pleasure (and then putting it in someone’s mustard jar), to assaults on pets, autistic kids and infants. Oh, John Waters is not the only one holding up a Filthiest Family (albeit no one here eats dog crap). As Mary, the screechy daughter-in-law, played by the wonderful and underrated Susan Tyrrell states, “People are so sick; the more you see ‘em, the sicker they look.” Sing it, sister.

Among the strangest inhabitants of this world are real life Brooklynite siblings, Geraldine and Marie Smith, who also play sisters in the film. It’s a joy to hear them talk, whatever they’re saying. One’s a pyro who sets fire to a movie theater and the very car they just robbed as they tool around.

While Warhol isn’t in the film, his presence is still subtly felt by some of his Factory crowd appearing in the film, such as Brigid Polk (as an insaniac who orders the doggie do-in) and Kitty Bruce (Lenny’s little girl).

Considering how shrill the film is, and how vile the storyline, the picture actually holds together better over time than early Waters’ has, becoming camp in a different way: AW’s Bad is more urban gritty in a Serpico or Taxi Driver kind of way, whereas Waters’ – whose films I truly enjoy – are more suburban mythical. And, may I add as a note rather than an insult, the people here are much better actors than those who appear in the early Baltimore auteur’s work (apologies to Divine, RIP).

AW’s Bad reminded me of other low-budget films of an earlier time, such as Lady in a Cage, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and even Arch Hall Jr.’s The Sadist. It’s certainly more shocking in a humanist way, than some of the other Andy Warhol-related releases, such as Frankenstein or Dracula, and the film is certainly better directed by Jed Johnson than, say, Heat or Trash (mind you, I haven’t seen those latter two films since the ‘70s, so I’m relying on a 30-year-old memory…jeez, I’m old…).

This is not a feel good movie in any kind of way, but it is sharp, in part by the sheer will and emotion of its actors, even when they’re being cool and suave like King, or cold and calculating like Baker. But it’s the others who have a scene or two that really make the picture into the true horror show that it is. Not for the squeamish at heart, but a wondrous slice of life of the truly bad.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

DVD Reviews: ThanksKilling and The Night Shift

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

I reviewed these two independent films together because they both set out to achieve some comedy along with the horror. Plus, I get to mention the Fonz, either directly or indirectly, in both. Peter Griffin  must be smiling somewhere…

Directed by Jordan Downey
MVD Visual, 2009 / 2011
66 minutes, USD $16.95

According to the commentary track with director Downey and co-writer Kevin Stewart, the purpose of this $3,500 film, shot in 11 days back while they were both in college, was not to make a horror film per se, but by aiming towards the “so bad it’s good” (SBIG) category, rather make it a comedy with horror elements. It is true that when one goes for SBIG, usually horror is the genre on which to point.

From the box alone, you know the territory is going to be no-prisoners: make the viewer laugh at any expense, no matter how low, no matter how silly, no matter how forced. And have they achieved their goal of making a comedy and the worst horror film ever made? Well, yes and no. Let’s discuss…

As promised on the box, the first shot in the film is of a naked breast, apparently that of a healthy and hefty pilgrim running topless through the woods, played in cameo by older adult star Wanda Lust (nee Shelia Hansen). She is fleeing something raised by the Indians (this film is intentionally not PC, so I won’t bother with the terms Native Americans or First Nations) to kill the Pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving. Let’s stop there a moment and ponder. Totally realizing that there is an abnormally large need for suspension of disbelief, let me say that if this had happened, we certainly wouldn’t be celebrating the holiday, would we? But as far as stretching credulity goes, this is one of the minor ones, relatively speaking. Again, though, that’s part of the point. It’s important to keep remembering that, going forward.

After the pilgrim prologue, we meet five high school students (okay, there goes that credulity thing again in my head…easy now, brain, this is just the beginning of the ride) who are going to be both heroes and victims of… well, it’s pretty obvious from the box, so I don’t think I’m revealing anything by saying it’s the killer turkey, imaginatively named Turkie (if they really wanted it to be scary, it could have been named Tofuerkie). I must say right now that for a killer puppet turkey, Turkie looks pretty good. Kudos guys. Perhaps they could pair up with the makers of The Puppet Monster Massacre, as both these films are sequel bound? Or perhaps even Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead? But I digress…

So, the teens are totally (and purposefully, according to the commentary track, which I highly recommend if you’re going to watch this… ha, bet you thought I was going to say “turkey”!) cinematic clichés, including Johnny, the jock with a heart of gold (Lance Predmore), his goofy hick pal, Billy (Aaron-Ringhiser-Carlson, doing his best Tyler Labine impression), Billy’s nerd hanger-on Darren (Ryan Francis, who in “real life” is the drummer of the female-fronted Ohio punk band Overated , as Huge Euge), good girl Kristen (Lindsey Anderson, whose only previous notation was in Troma’s Terror Firmer, 10 years before this), and bad girl Ali (Natasha Cordova, in full John-Lithgow-sitcom-overacting style, coming closest to what the commentary states they wanted).

The five set off on Thanksgiving break (yeah, I know and the writers acknowledge in the commentary) to go camping. Of course, they run into said Turkie in the woods, who was resurrected by the pee of the dog owned by a hermit named Oscar (as in “the Grouch,” played well by General Bastard, who is the singer of his own punk-garage band). 

Of course, this meeting of late-twenty-year-old teens and Turkie turns into a battle that takes it back to town, where Turkie does away with a bunch of townsfolk, including relatives as well as some of the main cast. While Kristen’s dad, the town sheriff (Chuck Lamb, who has made a mini-career out of playing dead bodies in films and television), may have the fakest looking moustache in recent cinema memory (though it works for his character, and I’d like to say Lamb did well in his rare speaking role), probably the goofiest moment is when Turkie disguises himself as the sheriff by putting on a hat and a plastic Groucho glasses / nose / moustache, so not even his daughter can tell them apart. It is one of the few moments that I actually laughed out loud, in sheer audacity. Well played, Jordan Downey.

One of the two most infamous scenes, though, is Turkie disguised as a woman, and then getting picked up as a hitchhiker who is obviously aroused, thinking he’s a (human) girl. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well, especially for the audience. The other is when Turkie has his way with someone (“You’ve been stuffed,” he states after), though it should be noted that it was done safely (at the scene is found an extra small condom, gravy flavored).

As with Freddie Kruger, Turkie gets a whole bunch of groaner puns to state at specific times that, yes, I have to admit, are memorable and I’m sure repeatable at some time or another in life (though, I can’t think of anything needing a “Gobble-Gobble Motherfucker,” except for it’s own sake; hey, it’s even on the box).

So, is this the worst movie ever made? No, of course not, because it doesn’t take itself seriously, and tries too hard. For a film to be truly bad, it has to be done straight, such as Plan Nine From Outer Space, Cape Canaveral Monsters, or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. But again, even as an acknowledged bad film, such as Bill Zebub’s The Worst Horror Film Ever Made, there is more a sense of either general goofiness or laziness than planned direction. That’s what is wrong with films like Epic Movie or Date Movie, in that they try too hard in a way that Fonzie kept trying so to keep his cool that he actually wasn’t.
The viewer has to be careful how to approach a film that intentionally tries to be bad. For example, I watched this the first time with a group of people who are a bit older (i.e., around my age), and even though they knew they were in for something bizarre (they did read the box, after all), they found it kind of silly more than anything else. I must admit, I appreciated it more after listening to the commentary by the director and writer (shame there were no captions because it would have been great to do both). Obviously, the demographic the film is aiming for is high school to college kids who either like inanity for inanity’s sake (hey, I’ve been there), or the alcohol and weed stoners who will laugh at a fart joke.

For me, the film definitely had its moments, and I was glad to watch it a second time by myself and actually see it (as opposed to in a talk-back crowd), and then, dare I say it, a third with the commentary. Waste of time? Sure. Sorry I saw it? No. While it may not have been the worst movie (I’m with Elaine about the film The English Patient, a book I thoroughly enjoyed, though), nor even a great comedy, it was a fun way to waste an afternoon.

Meanwhile, I’ve got my bag of popcorn ready for the nuker when the sequel (with a budget of $100,000) comes around.
Trailer below

The Night Shift
Written, produced and directed by Thomas Smith
Fighting Owl Films / Distributed R-Squared Films, 2010
126 minutes, USD $19.95

No, this is not the Ron Howard-directed film starring Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler (1982), nor any of the other recent productions with similar names, but rather a new horror comedy. At first, from reading the treatment on the box, I was wondering if it had anything to do with the wonderful 1994 Italian film, Dellamorte Dellamore,  but I was mistaken (though there are some similarities).

In a lovely landscaped cemetery, where all of the action takes place (filmed in Mobile, ‘Bama), there are two shifts (12 hrs each?) of caretakers. The first, during the day, is unconventional beauty Claire Rennfield (played by Erin Lilley, who is also producer, and did sound, art, make-up, has a history in opera and dance – and did I mention she’s also married to the director?; her character is named after Renfield, in Dracula), who works during the days, and is the intermediary between the residents of the cemetery and the mysterious people who run it. The night shift is run by custodian Rue Morgan (as in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” portrayed by Khristian Fulmer), who died in 1929, a week before the Great Depression. As official custodian, he does not rot along with the rest of the residents. Oh, yes, the other residents… well, I’ll get to them.

Because Rue is mort and Claire is vive, there is sexual tension betwixt ‘em, but she won’t have anything to do with him because, well, he’s dead, and will never age. What to do, what to do… Rue talks it over with his best friend, a limbless and dressed up skeleton named Herbie West (voiced by Soren Odom, who is also the assistant director, cinematographer, and wrote the music; any horror fan will recognize the character’s name as coming from Re-Animator). Herbie, played by a skeleton puppet, is a smart ass and adds further comic relief.

While they all try to figure out this complicated relationship, there’s shenanigans afoot. Apparently, the cemetery is connected to another, rival one, and by connecting the two, it will cause a rift that will cause the apocalypse (nah, didn’t make sense to me either, but I’ll go with it). Who is the enemy here? Is it the teen werewolf (modeled, of course, after Michael Landon’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf, including pompadour)? The Rebel officer from the Civil War who is Rue’s biggest nemesis? The demon who shows up unexpectedly that Rue must distinguish? Perhaps the higher-ups themselves are behind it all? Honestly, 20 minutes in, if you can’t figure it out, hang your head.

Along with the questionable characters, there are some nice guys, too, such as the preppy guy who’s entire make-up is a pastel blue on his face who acts mentally slow, or a teen who was obviously killed when hit in the head with a baseball (it’s still lodged there), among others.

Apparently, it’s no big whoop to have the dead roaming around all night from either Claire or any of the others who sneak in. Rue’s job is to keep the residents in at night, and visitors out. Rue is dressed in suspenders and loose cap, looking and talking like a Bowery Boy (sans New York accent), but gee, that’s swell. Claire is a bit of a hard-ass, but one might even consider her harassed by this dead compadre who keeps hitting on her (though I doubt that came across the thoughts of the writers).

There’s no great special effects that happen, and just about no blood, with any violence shown (other than an intentionally humorous sword fight), this is actually less scary than, say, The Pirates of the Caribbean.

While some of the acting is stiff (pun intended), such as Jonathan Pruitt’s Reb captain Roderick, whose line reading is, well, awful (though he’s not the only one), there is still a positive feel to the production. Shot for an estimated $10,000, the film has a good look to it.

For a first (and so far only) full feature by director Thomas Smith, it really is a encouraging starting point. Hey, it even won Best Fantasy Feature at the Shockerfest International Film Festival 2011. 

If you are squeamish and have problems with some of the blood, gore, and sexuality of most of the (especially) indie films out these days, this is a safe place to start.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

DVD Review: A Serbian Film (Srpski Film)

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

A Serbian Film: Unrated Version
Produced and directed by Srdjan Spasojevic
Invincible Pictures, 2010
103 minutes, USD $19.95

”It’s dangerous, Max…it’s more – how can I say – more political than that… It has something you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous.”
– Marsha, in Videodrome

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome should almost be a prerequisite for watching this film from the former Yugoslavia. They both deal with the issue of violence through media with a political bent. But Videodrome only brushes where Srpski Film takes off.

We are introduced to retired porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), whose specialties were having a bit of a violent streak and being fatigueless. But now he has a (understanding) wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic) and a six-year-old son. He is struggling to not only survive financially, but part of him misses the action, though he won’t admit it to himself.

Asked to come back for just one film by an ex-co-star, Lejla (Katarina Zutic), he is hesitant, but the promise of a big paycheck and “the itch” calls him. With Marija’s blessing, he meets with the director, Vulkmir (Sergei Trifunovic), who states that he wants Milos to just be himself, and so refuses to let him know what the film is about. Reluctantly, Milos agrees. And you just know it’s not going to end well.

Now, the North American audience has spent years watching graphically violent and disturbing films like Wolf Creek, and the Hostel and Saw franchises. This genre has come to been labeled by the term “torture porn.” Well, A Serbian Film pushes the scale ever further toward the latter. The most graphically and disturbing scene that comes to mind in previous films I have seen is the fire extinguisher incident from Irreversible, but parts of this one if not beat it, come thisclose.

Slowly but surely, through his own dark nature and a bit of an injected “sex drug” (a comment on Viagra or Calais?), Milos doesn’t just lose whatever is left of his moral compass, he becomes the pawn in a game that is completely out of his control as he suffers blackouts, only to find out later through videos and flashbacks just what kind of sick actions he’s been in the middle of performing.

No, I won’t go into detail, but there is a point to it all. Truthfully, I’m not aware of much Serbian history or politics, so a great deal of the context is stripped away leaving mostly the violence and sex (sometimes graphic, landing somewhere between softcore and hardcore in various degrees, including an erect penis, though I’m assuming it is a prosthetic, considering the length), without the point of a good deal of it.

I do get some of it, though, such as when Milos is wandering around Belgrade in a sex-drug-induced fog, and seeing all different forms of acceptable sexually suggestiveness, such as lingerie billboards, and magazines at a deli.

But it is pretty obvious that the film has, as posited at the beginning, a philosophy. It’s not simply violence for violence sake, especially when viewed in the Serbian historical perspective, but as I said, the message is hazy to one (e.g., me) unfamiliar with the background.

On YouTube, you can find lots of videos of people watchg the film, the most I've seen since the infamous two women and the cup reactions.

How far can one man go into the depths of his own depravity? And who is there to push him over that line? And to what purpose? The answer lay at the end of the film, but it’s not a pretty picture, both figuratively and literally, and as I said and which is pretty obvious, it does not end well for many. Does art imitate life/politics?

Does politics/life imitate art? Where does art begin and politics end, and vice versa? These are chicken-and-egg questions that the film addresses. Whether they answer it or not seems unimportant since, as one philosophy states, the question is as – if not more – important than the question.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I’m On the List

Text and image by © Robert Barry Francos

Did you hear about the poseur punk? He paid to get in.

That’s an old joke from the ‘70s. While I’ve paid for more shows over the years than have been on the guest list, I have also had the honor of having my name at the door quite a few times.

I don’t really remember the first time I made the list for my work on my fanzine (1977-88), but most likely it was either at CBGB (RIP) or Max’s Kansas City (RIP). However, making the list itself could have come earlier, in 1976, while I was Arts Editor of my college paper and had the opportunity to see a number of shows for free, such as Sparks and Mott at Avery Fischer Hall, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at both CBGB and the Bottom Line (RIP).

Actually, there are different levels to the list. The primo is considered the backstage pass at a bigger show, which usually results in a laminated card that is either hung around the neck or clipped to your clothes. As I mostly review independent artists (I’m still proud to say I turned down a chance to interview Duran Duran during their heyday because, well, who cares), the odds of the pass being that sophisticated is unlikely. In fact, the only laminated pass I have ever received, as far as I can remember, was to see the revived New York Dolls play a private concert at the now defunct Tower Records on lower Broadway, in 2006. Admittedly, I had nothing to do with it really: my pal’s son, Ben Kugel, used his influence to wrangle a pass for himself plus one, which ended up being a very fortunate “Uncle Robert.” We even got to hang out a bit with the band after the show.

When going for a guest list at the level to which I am used to, there is no fancy memento, even for some of the relatively bigger names. The end result is usually my name handwritten on a sheet of paper at the front door, hopefully with a “+1” following it. Now, it is always a gamble that you’ll get down there, and either you were forgotten, the band isn’t there yet with the list, the management suppresses the list because it’s that much less money for them if you get in free, or you were lied to because it’s easier to say yes and then ignore it after than confront a requester. If this occurs (and it has happened to me a number of times) you’re standing there saying “I’m on [band name]’s list,” only to find them responding, “No, nothing here.” In fact, this is so common that when I went to see D.O.A. at Amigos in Saskatoon, I brought along a printout of the email from the record company, Sudden Death, saying that if there was any problems at the door, to have them “find Joey” [Keithley], the band’s frontman. Occasionally, the door person will believe you anyway and let you in, but that is exceptionally rare, even for the smaller venues.

And just what does one do in that situation? Do you say screw it and pay anyway, or do you say screw it and walk away? Well, for me, it depends on a formula based on the factors of who is playing, how much is the cover charge, and how much cash do I have in my pocket. Since I’ve been to Saskatoon, I’ve been pretty lucky, and every time I’ve been on the list, my name was there. But more on that in a sec.

Back in Brooklyn, when I learned about a club called the Punk Temple (RIP) in my own Bensonhurst neighborhood (held in a Synagogue basement) in 2002, I contacted the guys who ran the place via email and asked them to put me on the list in exchange for photos that I would give to them and the bands. The answer was solidly no, because there were people already taking pictures. Yeah, I thought, teenagers with little to no experience on cheap digi cameras (I still used film then). So, I went anyway, gave my $8, and handed in the pix in anyway. That was the last time I paid at the Temple.

I got there early for the Temple shows (something I still like to do) and started hanging out with the guys who ran the place, making myself known to them and the bands, many of whom invited me to other gigs elsewhere. And when the fans formed bands, they in turn asked me to come. Honestly, I don’t think I paid for a single show from 2002 until 2009. Somewhere towards the end of the Punk Temple heyday, around 2004, I was in the space waiting for the show to start. While the mean age was probably 19-20, I was in my mid-40s. Some pimple-faced smartass approached me and asked, “What are you doing here, you fuckin’ old man?” Unperturbed, I responded by asking to see his wrist. After some “Wha?” from him, he showed me his stamp. “See that stamp?” He affirmed in a “What about it?” I continued, “See the stamp on the hands of everyone here? See the stamps on the band setting up?” He was getting angry(ier) and wanted to know my point (though he stated it in different words). I held up my clean hand: “Do you see any stamp on mine? No? That’s because I can walk in and out of this place any time I want. Can you?” At that moment, members of two different bands came over to me. “Robert! So glad you could make it,” giving me that man hug/back pat. I looked over at the kid, and he could only shrug his shoulders and walk away.

Yes, I like being on the list. The show could be for $50 or 50¢, it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of like the old First Nations’ “coup” (a bloodless game of war where you won by touching the opponent). But for me, no matter how I joke about this, it’s not something to be taken lightly, ever. When I’m on the list, for whatever the price of the ticket, for me it’s a contract that I intend to honor. I have never thought, “I’m not in the mood for the show; I’ll just blow it off because I didn’t pay for the ticket.” No, it’s a sacred bond; a promise on my part.

I’m not a musician, though I’ve tried both the guitar and bass. I’m untalented musically since I cannot remember chord streams and I have absolutely no sense of rhythm when it comes to actually playing. However, I still want to give to the scene, so what I do is a write and I photograph, making the photos accessible to the bands. This is how I contribute. Whenever I have been put on a list, I have reciprocated through documenting the show through reviews and/or photographs (lately, mostly on this blog). The bands can then use my thoughts and images for their own publicity. See, when I don’t pay cash to see a show, I still give my time, my mind, and my art in exchange, so it remains two-sided.

Since being in Saskatoon, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Johnny Winter, D.O.A., the Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Festival (including Jah Cutta), the Oral Fuentes Band, and Absofunkenlutely [AFL], while being on the entrance list. For the last three, it was pretty easy because I’m friendly with Oral, who is my neighbor, and through him met Randy Woods, leader of AFL; Oral also runs the Reggae Fest. Even with the personal connection, I have contributed solidly through photo and review.

With Winter and D.O.A., well, I asked their management or record company through emails. I had reviewed a bunch of Winter’s material previously, such as one DVD collection of his performances from the 1980s, and another of his shows in Germany from 1979. The management was uncertain about letting me in, I could tell, but after I published the review, they were quite happy and informed me they would let me know when any of their other artists hit town. For D.O.A., well, I’m sure Joey knows about my fanzine from the ‘70s-‘80s, which may have given me some extra credibility, and I’m hoping they liked the review and photos that are two blogs back from this one (see the list on the right).

Most of the time when I ask, especially with larger touring acts such Simon & Garfunkel or Roger Daltry who were to play in town (both cancelled), odds are I won’t hear anything back but the tumbleweeds, but it never hurts to ask. As S&G may have said, this is my blog for the asking, if you will.

That being said, do I consider myself a freebie whore? No, because part of the deal on my part is that I will be honest. If there is some act I see and don’t like, I was say so. I don’t whitewash just for a name at the door. When I agree to see a show, my end of the bargain includes my true opinion. I have had bands mad at me for saying they sounded out of tune, or were boring. Without honesty, there is no credibility. I am not merely a human press release, so it is a gamble for the band because of my sense to truthfulness, but it’s also one for me because the show may be, well, crap. Fortunately, most of the time, I have not been disappointed, and have had a blast.

So, you acts out there who are either in town or on tour coming this way, let me know, and if I say yes, I will be there, with camera and notepad in hand. But please, don’t forget to put me on the list (plus one).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History
By Chris Welch
Voyageur Press (Minneapolis), 2011
256 pages; USD $40.00 / CAN $44.00
ISBN: 978-0-7603-4046-2

My awareness of Clapton first came indirectly, with Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” In 1968, I was in sleepaway camp H.E.S. for three weeks that summer. Being co-ed, there was a weekly dance for us all to mingle. As I was 13 that year, it was a good thing. However, the only record anyone thought to bring along was the “Sunshine” 45. Though I don’t remember what the flip, “SWLABR,” sounds like, I do remember we all voted that we preferred the A-side. “Sunshine,” by itself, was played over and over at the gatherings, for hours. When we wanted to slow dance, we played it at 33-1/3. When we wanted to “freak out,” we played it at 78. I’m still comfortable hearing it in all speeds.

While “Sunshine” was in my consciousness, I wasn’t aware of who Cream was, as far as members go. At the time, I was more of a fan of girl groups, nascent garage, Simon and Garfunkel, and Allan Sherman. I don’t even remember hearing “Strange Brew” or “White Room” until well into the ‘70s.

What I do remember from my middle school days in the very late ‘60s and onward, though, was the graffiti. In the stalls of the Rock’n’Roll High School-style smoke-clogged Bensonhurst bathrooms, those few times I dared venture into there, were the common pen-scratched “Frodo Lives,” “I Grok Spock,” and “Clapton is God.”

Chris Welch has been writing about rock music since Clapton originally showed up on the scene, which is when they first met and struck up an acquaintance. It seems fitting for a man who has followed Clapton’s career - from humble beginnings to the present – to write a book about his music-making life. Clapton comes across as a restless artist, rarely being satisfied and eventually running away in one manner or another, caught between his self-doubt and explosive ego. You know… a musician.

The luscious oversized hardcover, filled with over 400 illustrations, is subtly broken into sidebars beyond the chapters, with descriptions, histories and photos of his guitars, dissection of certain key albums, and replication of artifacts such as posters, band images, and even concert stubs.

There’s no skimping on ink here, as most of the reproductions are excellent, in vibrant color or black-and-white. Then again, they are not overly doctored, either, so if the record has a ring on the cover, or a discoloration from time, that’s present as well.

The research that went into these images is staggering, from extremely rare releases, such as 45 cover sleeves, small concert ads and tour programs, promotions, and even personalized guitar picks.

But this is hardly a mere coffee-table photo book. It is also a full textual history of the artist, and includes quotes from many of the major musicians that connected with Clapton in the course of his life, and especially career. Even without all the reproduced figures, this is a full biographical book on Clapton’s craft. Welsh also does not hold back any punches, stating how some of Clapton’s recordings during the ‘80s are lackluster and not up to his potential.

White much of the detail is keen, and for that I can assuredly recommend this release, there are still a couple of holes and quibbles. For example, there is very little personal information that is included, with short shrift on Clapton’s drug and subsequent alcohol abuse, and very little mention about the turmoil brought about through the relationship of Pattie Boyd (whose own autobiography I found abysmal, but I digress…), with just a couple of references and one photo of them together. There is no citation in the text of Clapton’s involvement in the Who’s film version of Tommy (though there is a photo of him as the Preacher, and the disappointing film’s poster are shown), nor anything about his reaction to his best friend/rival George Harrison’s passing. Perhaps this is a conscious choice, wanting to rely more on the output of the artist rather than be bogged down in personal minutia?

The quibbling, nit-picking part is the use of the word “Ultimate” in the title, because the last time I checked Clapton was still alive, so there will be more to come, I hope….

This is just part of a series of “Illustrated History” releases for Voyageur, such as AC/DC and Aerosmith, and it’s a worthwhile project for certain. Each one is certainly a gem of images and information, and this one is absolutely essential to the Eric Clapton is God contingent, if not all the fans of his music and those interested in some solid rock history.

Bonus Videos:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Concert Review: DOA, October 29, 2011, at Amigos, in Saskatoon

Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on them

A version of this article appears at:

I have been a fan of Vancouver – well, Burnaby, anyway – punkers since I first listened to their War on 45 12” EP in 1981. Since then, I’ve heard much of their output, and read both of lead singer Joe(y) “Shithead” Keithley’s books (I, Shithead and the recent Talk-Action=0). And on Saturday night, October 29, 2011, D.O.A. came to Saskatoon for the second time this year, this time playing Amigos: family Mexican restaurant by day, excellent showcase by night; think of it as Zorro of the local music world.

Speaking of D.O.A., it should be noted that while the band is essentially Joe and whomever he is playing with, he is a serial musician, so while his group does shuffle personnel, they usually play with him for a long time. As D.O.A. has been around since ‘78, it is more likely to have people change than not. But to be clear, this is not a back-up band playing with Joe but a solid unit. The band now consists of Joe on vox and masterful guitar, Dirty Dan Sedan (nee Yaremko, who has now been with D.O.A. for a number of years) on bass, and the newest member, Jessie “The Kid” Pinner on drums.

But, as usual I get ahead of myself. Let’s go back… back to those thrilling days of earlier this week…

Audience pirate

I was dropped off at Amigos at just about 10 o’clock, with the first band scheduled to come on in a half-hour. The place had been open two hours already, as they are a restaurant, and Joe gave a talk about politics and his latest book previous to that (which I first learned after the night’s show). The place was not packed when first got there, but it was a nice crowd. Amigos has a bunch of side rooms, so it’s deceptive on how many people could actually be in the place.

When I first walked in, I had an “oh!” moment as, for some reason, I hadn’t thought about it being the Saturday before Halloween, so many were in costume. I saw a great one of Bender (Futurama), a burlesque dancer, a (male) pirate with a bare midriff, and some blond guy in a full First Nations outfit. I decided that if anyone asked, I was disguised as a webzine writer from New York.

[Rod Rooker]

Not wanting to spend any money (damn unemployment!), I stood by the side of the stage rather than sitting at a table and annoying the very pleasant wait staff. By the back door is a wall full of old set lists of unidentified bands. Impressive.

After a bit, the opening band came on stage who called themselves Kroovy Rookers, out of Edmonton (about 300 miles away). They’ve been together for seven years, and refer to themselves as “street rock with an oi/punk edge to it; out for beers and good times.” The bassist (Remi Desautels, aka Remi Rooker) came on wearing a gorilla mask and the drummer (Mike Martin, aka Rowdy Rooker) with a spandex Mexican style wrestling mask (both that I knew from past experience wouldn’t last long under the stage lights). The lead singer (Rod Gillis, aka Rod Rooker) had the bald head and Noddy Holder sideburns (told me later he’s a huge Slade fan), and you just know in warmer weather we’d be wearing cargo shorts.

[Remi Rooker]

Song topics include drinkin’, lovin’ and drinkin’. Oh, and lovin’. Yes, and drinkin’. Good-time music. They’re a fun power trio who sounded tight. I truly took pleasure in the song introductions: “This is about [A]; it’s called ‘[B]’.” Just plain, simple, and to the point. Refreshing.

[Rowdy Rooker]

While they played, there was a group slamdancing. You know the type: jocks who like the excuse to bash into everyone, and the music is really secondary. I’m finding it a bit passé, myself. Circle jerking, great, everyone can get involved, but bash-crash-pow is so 1983. Funny how the jocks who used to beat people up for being punk, now use the punk genre to continuing hitting everyone and proving how big their muscles are, and small their dicks. Anyway, I was taking pictures of the band and got a solid elbow to the face, dead square between my nose and teeth; a half inch up or down would have been a lot more consequential. Hurt for a second, and then my sinuses just cleared away, though I knew I would pay for it in the morning (and I was right). But, as my pal Tony (SQNS) Petrossa said with a shrug after his nose got bloodied one night at Brooklyn’s Punk Temple, “Hey, it’s punk rock.” What bothered me, though, was that it sent me back a couple of feet, and I knocked into said pirate and burlesquer’s table, spilling some of their pints. My first apology of the night.

When the Kroovy Rookers ended their set, I gave Rowdy my contact information, and then I sat down at an emptied table. Rod Rooker coincidentally sat down next to me, and we started chatting. Fun band = nice guy. It was an enjoyable ‘twix-sets spending some time talking to him. I forgot to ask him what the hell the band’s name means, though.

Soon, Joe Keithley came to the main room from where he was holding court and in true punk rock fashion, moved and carried amps to their right positions, as the rest of the trio helped. Honestly, he looked tired. This was toward the end of the tour, and he looked stiff. Also, it appeared his knees were of some issue (hey, try sitting in the van/car/whatever between shows for long tours and then carrying 50+ lb amps around, buddy!). They set up fairly quickly, and were ready to go.

I found a seat facing the front of the stage, with the mosh pit in front of me. I shoulda known better. After the third person fell across me, I said fuck this, and moved to the right side of the room. There were tables along the wall, and one spot where it looked like I could stand protected. Except, this jock stood purposefully in my way, beer in hand, looking at me like, “Whatca gonna do about it, eh?” So I leaned into him and pushed myself into the spot. Then when I raised the camera, he put his hand about three feet in front of the lens and so all I could see was his “finger.” Sigh. Macho knows no borders. Of course, I laughed like “yah, you got me” (while thinking other choice descriptive words), and fortunately he smiled back and ignored me after that. I leaned against the brick wall, behind the chair of some late teen girl (drinking limit is 18 in Saskatoon), who ignored me, thankfully. Eventually, though, I think the flash got to her, and she said to me, “Why don’t you go take pictures from the other side of the room.” Don’t blame her, actually, which leads me to the second apology.
The D.O.A. set started off with a roar of sound that brought joy to my ears. Been a while since I’ve seen a punk band this good. Starting off with “Nazi Training Camp,” they slammed into “That’s Why I Am an Atheist.” The crowd was instantly buzzing and in motion. The pit was larger as more people joined in, which also ironically made it a bit more less – er – dangerous. Still, when I moved to the left side of the stage after about six songs, I stayed there.

D.O.A. did many tunes from their new CD, also named Talk-Action=0, such as “I Live in a Car,” “Rebel Kind,” and “They Hate Punk Rock.” While Joe may have looked tired before the set, once the songs started, he, well, just use any positive sports metaphor here (e.g., hit it out of the park, scored a goal, touchdown, got a three-pointer).

There were themes to the between song banter by Joe, and of course they were political. He told the audience to support the Occupy movement and to vote against Brad Wall (Conservative incumbent Premier – that’s governor to the below the border crowd – who is trying to privatize everything at the expense of the “99%”; the election is on Monday, Nov. 7, and he is predicted to win). In fact, during the multi-song encore, he changed the D.O.A. classic from “Fucked up Ronnie” (Reagan) to “Fucked Up Brad,” much to the joy of the audience. Well, I don’t know if they cared or not, but I enjoyed it.

Speaking of the audience, while I was on the side of the stage, a very drunk guy dressed in a wicked cool zombie priest costume (Coffin Joe? Someone from a Fulchi film?) started insisting he knew who I was (supposedly some famous photographer), and he wanted to make sure that I knew that he knew. It was all very amusing. He asked me to take his picture, which I did, but it did not turn out as the flash didn’t go off, so I just wanted to apologize, guy.

D.O.A.’s songs are short and to the point. While the polish of some of the recordings was scraped away, the growl in Joe’s voice and the sting of the trio makes this equal fare, just stripped bare and bloody. Also, a great thing about short songs is that you get to hear a lot more of them in an allotted time. Why listen to one long drawn out prog opus for 20 minutes when you can hear about 10 punk songs in the same amount of time? And besides, they’re usually more fun anyway.
Lots of songs from the D.O.A. cannon were blasted out, such as “Disco Sucks,” “World War 3,” and their classic cover of “War.”.

I’d also like to add that as exhausted as they obviously were, and knowing this was the last stop on the tour before they head home (to celebrate Guy Fawkes day apparently, on Nov. 5), they gave all that they had, which was lots. If this was curling, one may say they hurry hard (okay, enough with the sports metaphors, Francos!).

[D.O.A. set list]
By the time they were done, including the encore, it was well over an hour. The band was soaked. The moshers were soaked. I had a sore elbowed mouth, but was happy.

Actually, I wanted to talk to Joe, say hi for myself and pass along good wishes from Jersey Beat publisher Jim Testa, but it seemed to be never the right time. He was either setting up, surrounded by drunks trying to tell him how great he was as he was trying to leave the stage (he actually had to ask someone not to block the stairs as he descended), or later counting the receipts at the merch table.
Speaking of later: So, after the show, which ended at 12:45 A.M. or so, I asked the bartender if he knew the number for a taxi, and he happily dialed a number and gave me the phone, going back to customers. No answer, so I redialed a couple of times and got put on hold for 10 minutes until the operator answered. “Thirty to 40 minutes,” she said. I went outside and waited while many wobbly drunk people got into their cars and trucks, and drove away with other people equally inebriated in the other seats. Shudder. After an hour, I went back into the bar, and the bartender gave me another shot at the taxi service. No one even picked up. Guy doing shots at the bar said, “This is Halloween Saturday. It’s 2 O’clock when all the bars let out. You’re fucked, dude” (yes, I swear, he called me dude). With no other option, I walked the two or more miles home, getting in at 2:40. Luckily, it was about 40F (while the tri-state area was getting blasted by snow), so it wasn’t so bad, just creepy watching cars meander all over the road. And in the end, it was all worth it.

Bonus Videos: some songs played that night